I’m going to spare you all another rant about the idiotic system of state-run wine and spirits stores in Pennsylvania. You know the drill: the state holds a monopoly on wine and spirits sales, making all clerks in the state-run stores civil servants. I have complained nastily here about the crappy selection and service you get in these places, and vowed never to shop there again. Well, I had to break my vow yesterday afternoon to buy a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne for my niece’s farewell dinner on Sunday night. I was sorely tempted to make the long drive to Jersey to get a grower’s Champagne at Moore Bros., but the prospect of having to do that with three children in tow, absent their mother, was too depressing.

I stopped at one state-owned store, and saw a sign on the shelf instructing Veuve Clicquot customers to ask at the register if they wanted to buy a bottle of it. The lines were long at the two registers that were open, so when I saw a clerk walk up to a third register and start fiddling with it, and I spotted a bottle of Veuve on the shelf behind him, I asked him about it.
“I’m not open,” he said.
“OK, but can you tell me how to get Veuve Clicquot? The sign on the shelf said to ask at the register.”
“Veuve Clicquot. That Champagne on the shelf right behind you.”
“Which one?”
“The orange label.”
It should be said that the Veuve Clicquot label is one of the most famous and recognizable wine labels in the world. This clerk had no idea what it was. He looked at the bottle on the shelf, then looked at me like I was an idiot.
“You have to ask about it at the register.”
Like the one this guy was standing at. With a bottle of the wine I wanted to buy. On the shelf right behind him.
I walked out. I stopped by the Sovietized wine shop in my neighborhood to see if I could buy a bottle of Veuve Clicquot like a normal person. Indeed, there was a bottle of the stuff in the cooler. It was $10 more expensive than I would have paid elsewhere, but there was no elsewhere. As I waited in line to exchange cash for it, a customer stopped at a wine display next to the register and asked the clerk to tell him something about the wine.
“People buying it,” she said. “But I ain’t know nothing about it.” She looked at the label. “That’s a Burgundy.” Boorgundy.
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She shrugged, then went back to checking people out. The customer skulked off.
The woman doesn’t know anything about a product her store is selling — that indeed her store is featuring prominently in a display near the register. She didn’t offer to find someone who could help the man who wanted to know something about the product. The truth is, there was probably not a soul on staff at that store who could have helped. Heroes of Socialist Labor medals all around!
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